From frozen to boiling
Apr 17th 2008
Georgia in the firing line: who’s watching?
DON’T give Georgia a firm promise of NATO membership, the argument went at the alliance’s recent summit in Bucharest, because it will provoke the Kremlin. If that was a calculated risk, it now appears mistaken. Russia is stepping up its political representation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway enclaves in Georgia that it has supported for the past 15 years, as well as its recognition of their legal system.
Just before the NATO summit, Georgia came out with a peace plan which—had it been offered a few years ago—would have counted as a magnanimous attempt to restart the blocked negotiations. It offered Abkhazia wide-ranging autonomy in return for talks on other contested issues. But the timing made it look like a gimmick, and it fell flat.
Now the Kremlin has taken the initiative, with a neat double-edged argument. The first is aimed at Georgia: by moving towards NATO, you are provoking us, so take the consequences. The second is aimed at NATO: if you really want to take Georgia under your wing, you will have to worry about direct military conflicts with us. So beware.
The argument is proving effective, though Russia’s support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia is really nothing new. Their economies are already propped up by Russian subsidies and their borders defended by Russian soldiers (labelled as peace-keepers). Most of the population has Russian passports. That gives the Kremlin a perfect excuse to increase its formal presence and involvement: after all, it is merely looking after its own citizens.
Diplomatic recognition is a slippery concept. Thanks to pressure from “Red China” (as it used to be called) most countries do not formally recognise the Republic of China (as Taiwan calls itself). But trade, tourism and political ties continue quite smoothly. Contrast that with countries such as Somalia that have diplomatic recognition—but not much else.
Abkhazia could end up as Russia’s Taiwan. That gives the Kremlin plenty of room to create more practical links (including military ones), without creating big diplomatic problems with the outside world, or setting dangerous precedents in its own restive regions.
Russia may hope to provoke the Georgian authorities into adventurism abroad or a crackdown at home. The parliamentary elections due on May 21st already look troublingly flawed—though blame for that rests at least partly with the hotheaded and shambolic opposition, as well as with the authorities’ heavy-handed approach to media freedom and judicial independence. The Council of Europe this week noted with dismay, for example, the failure to introduce promised electoral reform measures, or to allow the opposition unrestricted access to CCTV footage of polling stations.
It is hard to overstate Georgia’s importance for the West. This week’s news that the European Union had reached an initial gas deal with Turkmenistan, for example, highlights yet again Georgia’s role as an energy corridor linking Europe with Central Asia.
In that calculus, morals usually go out of the window. Iran is a pariah, but Turkmenistan (a far worse dictatorship) is a potential strategic partner. Flaws that would prompt hysterics if they happened in Russia are overlooked in Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan.
In one sense, that gives Georgia carte blanche to behave badly. Even friends of Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, admit he can be impetuous, secretive, and hostile towards independent advice, but they seem unlikely to kick up a fuss.
That would be a sad outcome—not least for Georgia. The best way to defeat the Kremlin’s real and proxy attacks is not to create a Georgian version of Putinism, but to escape from it. In other words, to be a political success story and not just an economic one.
Thursday, April 17, 2008